RM: This is 99 Percent Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.
RM: About 8 weeks ago, one of the producers here at 99pi ordered a book. Our office receives a lot of books, but this one, this one was special, everyone wanted to read it.
Sean: Ok first of all..
Kurt: This book is beautiful!
Vivian: I know.
JR: Only it wasn’t just any book.
RM: That’s producer Joe Rosenberg.
JR: It was a catalog.
Katie: Oh my god it’s from 1908.
Avery: Catalogue number 177, of the Great price Maker!
Kurt: Oh so there’s so much stuff…
JR: The Sears & Roebuck Mail Order Catalog was nearly omnipresent in early twentieth century American life. In 1908, when this particular issue came out, one out of every five Americans were already subscribers.
Vivan: So is this kind of like the Amazon warehouse before the Amazon warehouse?
JR: Anyone, anywhere in the country could order this catalog for free, look through it, and then have anything their heart desired delivered directly to their doorstep. Like seriously, anything.
Kurt: Parasols and pipes.
Avery: Really fancy looking belts.
Vivan: Ostrich feathers…
Kurt: The world’s best ostrich feathers!
Sean: Oh, headstones!
RM: At its height, the Sears catalog offered over 100,000 items on 1400 pages. It weighed four pounds.
JR: Today, those 1400 pages provide us with a snapshot of American life in the first decade of the 20th century.
Sean: $15.96 Our new William special’s single strap buggy harness.
Katie: Wait, what is that?
Avery: It’s a sheep shearing machine.
Katie: Menstruation products have definitely evolved.
RM: The Sears catalog tells the tale of a world, itemized. But starting with this very issue, in 1908, the company that offered America everything began offering what just might be the most audacious, and in some ways, most necessary item of all.
KM: And …
AT: Uh, wait! These are…
RM: On page 596, Sears subscribers would come across a drawing of a house. Two stories. Nine rooms. Gabled roofs. And a price: $1700.00
VL: Wait seventeen hundred dollars for…no!
KK: I think the whole thing!
VL: For the house?
JR: From 1908 to 1940, the Sears Modern Home Program offered complete, full size, mail-order houses to the would-be homeowner; what would come to be called “kit homes.” Sears actually provided an entirely separate catalog for these kit homes, featuring dozens of different designs.
RM: All you had to do was select your preferred model from the catalog, fill out the provided form, send in a check, and a few weeks later everything you needed would arrive in a train car. It’s door secured with a small red wax seal; just like the seal on the back of a letter to the King or something. It was to be broken only by you.
RT: You throw open the door to this boxcar and you’re looking at 12,000 pieces of framing lumber and 20,000 cedar shakes.
JR: That’s Rosemary Thornton, an architectural historian and the author of The Houses That Sears Built. She says that that train car also came with every single door, every single door knob. A fold-away ironing board for your kitchen. Even the mantle for the fireplace.
RT: And then you would begin the process of dutifully loading it either onto your mule and cart, or your or your model T.
JR: The lumber came pre-cut, kind of like a giant Ikea set, along with, in true Ikea style, an instruction booklet. If you provided the foundation, Sears promised that working without a carpenter, and only rudimentary skills, you could finish your Sears mail-order home in less than 90 days. Although Rosemary says those instructions also came with warning:
RT: “Do not accept anyone’s advice on how this house should be built. Follow this instruction manual and do not deviate.” So if the old wizened Carpenter comes by and says, “I wouldn’t build it that way,” Sears is warning you up front: Do not listen to that man!
RM: Sears would go on to ship out some 75,000 homes across the country. In doing so, they helped replace the idea that each new house needed to be built from scratch with the promise that homes could be standardized, affordable, and within reach of every family. Long before the advent of housing developments and the modern suburb, it was the Sears kit home that gave Americans their first taste of 20th century domestic life. But it’s also a chapter of housing history that was almost lost.
JR: Sears was not the first company to offer kit homes, nor even the first mail order catalog, but it came to dominate mail order because its founder, Richard Sears, was that thing that so many people would claim to be over the course of the 20th century, but very few actually were: he was a marketing genius.
RT: He just did so many things. And one of my favorites is that Sears knew that most farm households would have both the Montgomery Ward and the Sears Roebuck catalogue in the household. So he purposefully made his catalog just a little bit less wide and a little bit less tall than the Montgomery Ward Catalog, knowing that when the farm house wife was tidying things up she would naturally put the Sears Roebuck catalogue on top of the Montgomery Ward catalog! I love that.
JR: By 1907, Sears and Roebuck was selling the then equivalent of 1.3 billion dollars of merchandise to American families every year. And it’s around this time that Richard Sears saw a way to sell even more.
RM: Most American families were still living in multi-generational housing. The reigning paradigm of the middle class was the Victorian home, with it’s many little rooms divvying up children, uncles and grandparents. Sears looked at this idyllic scene of families living in harmony and saw a wasted opportunity: Why should newlyweds move into old homes filled with old things, when they could move into new homes and fill them with new things, from Sears?
JR: And thus the Sears Modern Home Program was born. And it was a hit, particularly after the the end of World War One. when the influx of returning veterans triggered a need for more housing.
RT: There was literature that said if you really love this country, if you really want to do right by America, buy a house. Build a house. And that’s when kit homes really took off.
JR: Sears cut the lumber for almost all these homes, ready to order, in giant mills situated across the country. The largest, in Cairo, Illinois, at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, covered nearly 40 acres, and the sheer variety of homes it shipped out was staggering. That first Modern Homes catalog already had over 40 models to choose from, but Sears would go on to offer 447 different designs.
RM: Every house in the catalog had a name befitting its architectural aspirations. So if you always dreamed of living in a California mission style home, but you couldn’t actually move to California, you might consider purchasing Sears’ Alhambra model. Other styles included the craftsman style Winona, The dutch colonial Martha Washington.
RT: They range from everything from what I would call a hunter’s cabin, literally, a two room house for two or three hundred dollars, to the Sears Magnolia which was two thousand nine hundred square feet, two full bathrooms upstairs, a half bathroom downstairs, two full fireplaces, a den. It even had servants quarters and a servants private bath.
JR: Sears even offered a six-classroom schoolhouse, complete with an auditorium and library. But mostly it was homes.
RM: Big, beautiful, empty homes. Just waiting to be filled with, things.
RT: In fact, if you look at some of the old floor plans, it’ll feature the the living room, the dining room, the bedrooms. But then it will say, “place for a graphaphone, spot for a piano player, place for two tufted chairs.”, so he was kind of showing people how to stuff their houses with stuff from the Sears Roebuck catalog.
JR: And consumers obliged. There are tales of first time homeowners who bought what you might call a “turn key operation” from the catalog. The house, the furniture, and the many little things that rested on the furniture. A whole new life, all from Sears.
RM: In part because the company used its considerable marketing savvy to make it clear that building your house was going to be easy. With a pre-designed home, you didn’t need an architect, and with the precut lumber frame, you didn’t need a carpenter either. You could treat it like any other consumer item.
JR: Sears even had this ad in the front of the catalog. It showed two Rodessa models, one of Sears most popular houses, being built side by side. One was built from scratch essentially, using ordinary building materials and uncut “stick” lumber. The other with pre-cut lumber.
RT: In the ad, the house with the stick lumber sits unfinished, people are collapsed in the front yard, exhausted.
RM: And then the house with the pre-cut lumber, they’re sitting on the porch with a mint julep you know, having just the time of their life!
JR: And so although many people did hire a contractor to build their Sears Home, many did not.
RT: And I have heard many stories about families receiving their kit home and calling on neighbors to help them come out and start the process of building the house.
JR: For many families, these were their first homes with things like central heating, and insulation. In some neighborhoods, a Sears kit home might be the only house on the block with electricity.
RM: And in 1911, Sears began offering competitive mortgages to their customers, which also helped people in neighborhoods of color to get around the practice of redlining.
RT: And redlining just meant that the bankers and the mortgage lenders would draw a line around neighborhoods where they would not loan money. So Sears didn’t do any of that, and that enabled immigrants, men and women of color, and single women who would otherwise never have a chance of becoming a homeowner, to have indoor plumbing for the first time.
JR: But then the company discovered that it had made a mistake. One that will probably sound all too familiar.
RM: From the beginning, Sears had made sure their mortgage policy was like everything else in their catalog. Obtainable. The application form was only half a page long, and almost everyone who applied for a mortgage qualified. Meaning that the average Sears homeowner was also in debt to Sears. In the roaring 20’s, when interest rates were low, and liquidity high, it wasn’t a problem.
JR: But when great depression hit, things got ugly fast. The company ended up foreclosing on tens of thousands of its very own customers.
RT: I mean, it was an emotional devastation. We all know the Great Depression was horrible for so many reasons, but losing a home that you had built with your own two hands just seems like such a twist of the knife.
JR: For Sears, it was a PR disaster. Rosemary remembers talking to someone in 2003 who described how Sears had foreclosed on their grandparents home in 1931. The very same home Sears had sold them a decade earlier.
RT: And he said, “For two generations our family never patronized Sears ever again.” I mean, those are strong feelings to go from 1931 to 2003.
RM: After years of declining sales, Sears would finally close it’s Modern Homes department in 1940. A few other kit home manufacturers, ones that hadn’t sold mortgages, they survived, but the Sears kit home boom was over. Then came World War II, and with it, the next modern housing boom, featuring the rise of the suburbs and the pre-fab home. The homes so many of us live in today.
JR: Meanwhile, most of the Sears homes: The Alhambras, the Argyles, the Magnolias, they ended up being sold to to new owners who didn’t know what they’d bought, or didn’t care to know. Despite the high quality of the materials, over the decades, as the company became associated with convenience over and above quality, no one wanted to admit that they lived in home that came from the Sears catalog. It was embarrassing. So a lot of them ended up being renovated beyond recognition. Many were torn down. Others were simply abandoned. And as for where to find the ones that remain…
RT: Unfortunately, after World War II during a corporate housecleaning, the sales records were destroyed.
JR: So the records are missing?
RT: The records are gone, Chief.
JR: Oh. Yeah, they’re not just missing, they’re gone.
RT: They’re gone. They’re in somebody’s burn pile. All that stuff was disposed of. So the only way to find these houses today is literally one by one.
JR: A few weeks after I interviewed Rosemary, I went to see some of the last remaining Sears homes outside of Cairo, Illinois, the town where Sears largest mill had once stood. When I got there, the only sign that there had ever been anything there was the name of a back road, Sears, leading to tiny houses; two Sears Rodessa models sitting next to each other. They were the twin Rodessa models from that original advertisement, with the two homes being built. One fast, one slow, side by side. Now they were in so-so shape, but somehow they’d outlived the mill that built them here on Sears Roebuck Road. I stopped to take a look, and 30 seconds later a man waved me inside.
GUY PARKS: Shut up! Go to your room! Sorry. They’re just noisy, they’re trying to scare you off I think.
JR: Guy Parks greeted me in a walker wearing an old mechanics jumpsuit. As he settled into an easy chair in the living room, he told me that he’d lived on and off in Cairo since the 50s and that he first laid eyes on this Rodessa, nearly 35 years ago.
GP: The house was derelict. I mean, it was…the roof was leaking and the windows were broke out. It was still safe, but it was old.
JR: Guy ran into the owner a little while later, and the owner said to him, “How ‘bout I sell you the place, and you fix it up?”
GP: I said, “Hell I can’t buy nothing, I ain’t saved a dollar out of my last check.” Then he said, “I’ll sell it to you for fifteen.” I thought he meant thousand. I said, “Man, I wouldn’t give that for it if it’s up in shape.” He says, “I’m talking about hundreds.” I said, “You wait right here.”
RM:: So Guy went out, came back an hour later with the cash, and bought the Rodessa for $1500.00, on the spot. Eventually, he’d buy the Rodessa next to it, too, the twin. His son lives there now.
GP: And I hate to say this, but I’m dumb enough, that I spent everything I made for the next five six years on this place trying to make it right.
JR: Did you know that it was a Sears?
GP: Yeah, I knew that all of these were Sears homes because the man lived down on the corner, he worked for Sears.
JR: Did he tell you any stories about the mill?
GP: Oh yeah [laughing], but he always told me the bad stuff.
JR: Guy’s neighbor had told him that the job at the mill had been hard, dangerous work. As with a lot of mills in the area, it wasn’t uncommon to see employees missing fingers. When the Sears Modern Home Department closed, the workers purchased the plant and switched to making crates for bombers during WWII. After that, they tried making its own kit homes under a new name, but ultimately they couldn’t hold on. The mill closed in 1955.
GP: They didn’t make very many homes after that. I think this one down on the end, the little yellow house, was probably the last one they built. And it was just a little, a little shotgun house. My wife’s sister lived there until she died.
RM:: Even Guy’s house isn’t very Sears anymore. He’s replaced a lot of the original parts over the years.
GP: See that front door?
GP: The only thing in this house, in this room right here that’s original was that front door. Sears door.
JR: Before a series of race riots gutted the downtown Cairo in the 1960s, the town had nearly a hundred other Sears homes. Now maybe only a third of them are left. Guy watched as the rest were abandoned or reduced to rubble.
GP: And the downtown just kept going down, going down, going down. You could see every month or so there’d be another business gone. Finally there was nothing down there but derelict buildings falling down. And since then all that’s all that’s gone. Yes it’s all gone. Nothing’s the same.
RM: For a long time, Guy Parks’ little Rodessa and it’s twin, were two of just a small handful of Sears homes that had been located and identified. When Guy bought the house, of the 75,000 kit homes that Sears built and shipped, fewer than 5% had been properly documented. Most sat undiscovered. If you lived in a Sears house, chances are you didn’t even know it.
JR: But a little over twenty years ago, one woman took a big step towards changing that. Although, as she herself would be the first admit, she didn’t really mean to.
RH:It’s pure serendipity that I ended up in this field.
JR: This is Rebecca Hunter, and no, she doesn’t live in a Sears home. BUt she does live in a town on the other end of Illinois. A little west of Chicago, on the Fox River. It’s called Elgin.
RM: And unlike Cairo, Elgin was not known for Sears Homes. When Rebecca first got there in the mid 90s, almost no one there, herself included, even knew what a Sears house was.
RH: But then my partner died in 1995 and I was doing everything, because it helped.
JR: And that’s how Rebecca ended up at the local library, where she happened upon a book about Sears Homes which contained old catalog images of the various models. Which would mean nothing, except that one bitterly cold day in February, 1997.
RH: That book happened to be lying on the dining room table and I picked it up and I said, “Oh haha, I wonder if I could walk around my neighborhood and find one of these houses, that would be really funny.” And so I picked up the book and I set about walking around my neighborhood.
JR: Like how many were you realistically expecting to find?
RH: I wasn’t expecting to find any, but it was really kind of fun. You know I had a goal, I had a mission and I forgot about the cold.
JR: And then, after oh I don’t know, ten or fifteen minutes…
RH: I was walking down Plum Street and I saw this house and I instantly knew it was a Sears.
JR: Right there, after almost zero effort, Boom! a Sears House. Rebecca looks at the house, looks at the book, looks at the house, looks and the book, and it’s match. Craftsman style, tapered porch columns, the Avalon model.
RH: Then I said, “Huh, I wonder if I could walk around my neighborhood and find another one. And so I did.
RM: On walk after walk, Rebecca kept finding Sears models.
RH: The Mitchell, The Crescent, The Vilonia.
JR: Then there was the Betsy Ross, The Osborne, The Alhambra.
RH: In fact there is one street that has the Sunlight model on one side of the street, the opposite is the Starlight. So you have the Starlight and the Sunlight across the street from each other.
RM: But Rebecca wanted to confirm that these were Sears homes, so she sent a mailer out, asking each resident to go and inspect the basement.
RM: When they did, most discovered beams bearing a special stamp with a part number from Sears. Others found shipping labels from Sears on the back of attic baseboards. Still others managed to find their home’s original Sears blueprints. And Rebecca’s not even done, there are still more houses waiting to be investigated.
JR: What did the the total number of houses end up being?
RH: At the moment I think we’re at 237 Sears houses, and about a hundred from other companies.
JR: What’s more, most of the homes Rebecca found looked like they were straight out of the catalog. They had barely been altered since the 1920s. That’s why she was able to find so many; because the homes could still be recognized. And there was a specific reason why.
RM: When the Elgin Watch Factory, which had employed a quarter of the town, closed in 1964, Elgin entered a localized recession, sparing it from the renovation craze of the 60s and 70s. Instead, Elgin’s Sears Homes simply sat there through the decades, untouched.
JR: Does anyone ever point out that the closing of the watch factory froze the houses in time?
RH: Oh yeah, we talk about that. We love it. We love it!
JR: Rebecca’s study of the Elgin Homes, along with the work of other researchers like Rose Thorton, our architectural historian, would help to launch what has become a Sears house hunting movement. People whose chief passion in life is to scour the land, trying to find as many kit homes as possible. Including Rose.
RH: Some people do crossword puzzles, and some people do jigsaw puzzles. I guess I look for Sears homes.
RH: Well actually, me and Rose, and Dale, and Wendy, and Andrew, and Nigel, and Cindy, look for Sears houses.
RM: Those names form part of an elite core of the Sears House hunters. An A-Team if you will. And like any proper A-Team, each member has their specialty. Rosemary hunts for the rare Sears Magnolia, the three story colonial mansion. So far, she says, they’ve found ten.
JR: Dale Wolicki specializes in kit homes built Sears biggest competitor, the Aladdin Company. And Andrew Mutch is the numbers guy. He’s currently working with about half a dozen people on a database that would list every single Sears.
RM: Meanwhile Nigel Tate, at 19, the youngest member of their team, has found over 1,000 kit homes without even leaving his desk. He uses Google street view.
JR: But mostly they hunt for houses the old fashioned way. Chasing down clues, patrolling the mean streets of America, in a car, together.
RH: And Andrew is up in front and he’s got his computer, and he’s writing down addresses and and Dale is driving, and Wendy and I are in the backseat, each with the camera. And everybody’s looking out the window and somebody says, “Hey what’s that over there on the right?”
RM: Although, let’s face it, they’re not exactly bounty hunters.
RT: And so, I’m getting out and I’m taking pictures, and this very large, angry man bursts out the front door. He has a baseball bat in his hand and we get in the car and we take off.
JR: The occasional misstep aside, Rose and Rebecca think they and other house hunters have helped identify nearly 50,000 kit homes from Sears and other companies.
RM: So the next time a rag-tag team of researchers armed with cameras, laptops and an old Sears catalog knocks on your door, and asks of if they can take a quick tour or your basement, don’t be frightened. They’re there to help. And who knows? you might even be standing in an undiscovered model.
JR: Have you ever seen a Sears school schoolhouse? Because I saw that they offered that one year.
RT: Oh yeah, I’ve been looking for that a long time. Good lord, I’ve been hunting that thing down like it’s my job!